Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: AFP

Recently, a two-time BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) member of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of the Indian Parliament), Chandan Mitra, also the owner and editor of an English-language daily, left the saffron party and joined the Bengal-based All India Trinamool Congress. His desertion is seen as a signal that a section of those who celebrated Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014 are now turning against the prime minister.

After the 2014 general election and in the state elections that followed, Modi managed to boost his image with the help of a winning spree that made him seem invincible. However, one year before the 2019 battle, Modi seems unbeatable no longer – if the opposition is united.

In politics, even a week is enough to swing voters, either in favor or against. Before next year’s national elections, India will witness four state elections to be held this year. The states are Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram. All but Mizoram are currently ruled by the BJP. Those three states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – account for a total of 65 seats in the Lok Sabha, lower house of Parliament, 62 of which were won by the BJP in 2014.

There is a strong belief that the BJP may lose in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. However, it is also a reality that a significant number of voters in these states still prefer Modi over their own state BJP chief ministers. That means the people may reject the BJP in the state-assembly polls but will vote for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections.

Also, the political background in the country has undergone an overall change. The BJP is no longer only a party representing the Hindi heartland  – it has successfully unfurled its wings in the northeast region of the country under Modi’s leadership.

The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) is expected to win at least 20 of the 25 seats from the northeast – an increase of nine seats in comparison with 2014. The saffron party is also expected to win around 15 seats in Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s stronghold, West Bengal – which accounts for 42 Lok Sabha seats, though that figure is still less than the party’s target of 22-plus. Last time, the party won only two seats in that state. The recent enthusiasm seen at a Modi rally in Medinipur, West Bengal, may indicate that the people of the state are not averse to voting for the BJP.

Opposition unity is slowly emerging as a wall against the BJP, and the ruling party is well aware of it. This was evident from Modi’s speech in the Lok Sabha against a no-confidence motion, where he launched a full attack against the Indian National Congress but abstained from doing so against the regional forces. This means that Modi is trying to send signals to the regional forces that the BJP is ready to accommodate them and has realized the strength of other parties.

A big embarrassment for the BJP came from ideologically close Shiv Sena, a Maharashtra-based party, that chose not to support the government during the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha and has announced its intention to contest the next general election separately.

However, two regional forces – Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) and Odisha-based Biju Janata Dal (BJD) – have been staying away from the opposition, as witnessed in the Lok Sabha during the no-confidence vote, when the two parties walked out of the house. So if the NDA coalition fails to secure a majority in 2019, the BJD and TRS may secretly support the NDA, if not openly.

However, it was the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) that openly supported the Modi government during the motion. Although after the death last December of its leader, Jayalalithaa, AIADMK is not in a position to retain its previous tally of 37 seats, it is still a force in Tamil Nadu and may get a portion of seats, as the opposition is divided in the southern state.

These three states – Odisha, Telangana and Tamil Nadu – together account for 77 Lok Sabha seats. Last time, the NDA won a total of only five seats in the three states. But this time, the BJP wants to gain a major chunk seats by extending the umbrella of the NDA.

Also, in Andhra Pradesh, which has 25 Lok Sabha constituencies, the saffron party is wooing the opposition YSR Congress. Jaganmohan Reddy’s YSRC is expected to fare well in the upcoming state and Lok Sabha elections, and the party is not averse to some kind of alliance with the BJP.

Opposition unity mainly remains a headache for the BJP in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Those two states gave 104 seats to the NDA out of the 120 up for grabs. But Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath’s charisma is waning, and similarly Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, an ally of the BJP, is facing a credibility crisis. So in these two states, the BJP has to look into its strategy.

Rising fuel prices and distribution of jobs to the youth of the country remain a challenge. The Modi government still has some months and the recent rise in minimum support prices for Kharif (rainy season) crops, if implemented properly on the ground, could help contain farmers’ disenchantment with the government.

So it is too early to conclude that India will have a new prime minister, as Modi’s charisma still matters to the country’s electorate. But the truth is BJP will be facing a strong challenge in 2019 – from a “united” opposition and doubts over the promises of “good days” made by the BJP during its 2014 election campaign.

Sagarneel Sinha

The writer is an India-based commentator on politics, religion, culture and philosophy and tweets @sagarneelsinha.

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